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Posted on Dec 29, 2011 in War College

Under the Yankee Fist: The Wartime Diary of James Rumley

By Gordon Berg

Under cover of darkness, two companies of the 4th Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry filed into the sleepy fishing and resort village at the mouth of the Newport River where it empties into Bogue Sound. The Yankees had come to Beaufort, North Carolina, in the pre-dawn hours of March 26, 1862, 12 days after their victory at nearby New Bern gave them control over much of North Carolina’s central coast. The bluecoats wouldn’t leave until the Civil War was over.

What was it like to live in a town occupied by an enemy army? How did the presence of Union troops affect the economic, social, and cultural life of Beaufort’s residents? How did a former slave-holding population react to the influx of thousands of newly freed African American "contrabands?"

The Octagon House, Cedar Point, N.C., was built in 1855, reportedly by slave labor. Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.In one of the few diaries published by a secessionist after living under Union rule in the South, 50-year-old James Rumley, clerk of the Carteret County court of pleas and quarters, observed and commented on these and other issues affecting daily life in his native village during 41 months of continuous Union occupation. Written more as a wartime journal to be read by future generations than a diary of private thoughts and feelings, Rumley’s ruminations provide a rare window into the nature of Union military rule and how an ardent secessionist reacted to it.

The original diary has long been lost. Two copies—one handwritten, the other typed—were serialized and appeared in Beaufort newspapers in 1910 and again in 1937. For many years, the diary was thought to have been written by Levi Woodbury Pigott, another Beaufort resident. But a recent publication of the diary by the University Press of Florida, with an excellent annotation by Judkin Browning, assistant professor of military history at Appalachian State University, confirms that Rumley was the author.

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Few details of Rumley’s personal life are known. Well-educated and a lifelong bachelor, he served as clerk of various Carteret County courts from 1848 until he died at age 69 in 1881. The job paid well. In 1861, Rumley owned $800 in real estate and $4,000 in personal property that included two slaves. In 1870, he claimed only $200 of personal property. Most of his personal estate, including the slaves, was lost during the war.

Rumley managed to delay taking the oath of allegiance until January 1863. A diary entry for March 25, 1863, revealed that he followed the lead of other Beaufort residents who "have felt compelled to submit to the formality of the oath, believing it did not bind them morally and would not, in the slightest degree, impair their loyalty to the South."

Between April 23–26, 1862, Rumley witnessed the relatively bloodless siege of Fort Macon, guarding Beaufort harbor. "The bombs were thrown with little precision from batteries or ships," he wrote, "and sometimes burst high in the air, and scattered their fragments over land and sea." After Colonel Moses J. White (West Point, class of 1858) surrendered the fort, he and his entire command were paroled. Rumley and the citizens of Beaufort could only watch as "the most loathed and hated ensign that ever waved over any people" was raised over the fort.

Fort Macon entrance and moat. Thomas T. Waterman, 1940, Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.His incendiary language notwithstanding, Rumley managed to hide the depth of his true southern sympathies from a succession of Union officers. All of them allowed him to keep his county court job that put him into almost daily contact with the military government he despised. In May 1862 he despaired that "Civil liberty has now fled. The presence of armed sentinels within and without the town, indicate the reign of military despotism … Our minds are groping in a wilderness of gloomy thought."

"One of the sad results of the military occupation of this county," Rumley opined in a long entry for January 1, 1863, "is the suspension of our civil courts." Under martial law, "all cases of violations of the civil or military law, have to be heard, if heard at all, before the Provost Marshal or Commandant of the Post." But, for Rumley, and probably many other whites living in Beaufort, the most galling aspect of military justice was that now "a negro, who in our civil courts could not be heard except through his master, can appear as the accuser of any white citizen and cause the citizen to be arrested."

Rumley was a virulent racist and his diary entries abound with dire predictions of Armageddon resulting from the arrival of thousands of newly freed contrabands who flocked to the safety of the Union lines. Before the war, there were few plantations in the Beaufort area and slaves made up less than 25 percent of Carteret County’s population. But contraband camps quickly sprang up on the town’s outskirts and by 1865, they were home to more than 3,200 people; 11,000 more lived on the fringes of nearby New Bern.

The histrionic language Rumley uses in his March 25, 1863, entry to bemoan the end of white supremacy indicates the depths of his despair. "On the horizon of the future rises a portentous cloud blacker far than any that has yet darkened the vision," Rumley predicted, "and charged with an element of war more horrible than any that has yet been let loose upon us." Rumley also gave voice to a fear harbored by many white Southerners that "Armies of black negroes may yet be turned upon us, to complete the ruin and desolation that Yankee vandalism has begun."

For Rumley, Yankee vandalism included armies of newly freed people occupying the homes of whites who had fled to the interior. Almost as bad were the two Negro schools "which abolitionism reared up in the heart of the community," established by two Vermont women representing the American Missionary Association. Rumley’s December 1, 1863, diary entry ominously predicted that "The effect of all this is to fill the minds of the negroes with mortal hatred of the whole white population of the state, as well as the whole South, and there can be no hope of harmony between them."

'The effects of the proclamaition – freed Negroes coming into our lines at Newbern, North Carolina.' Harper's Weekly, Feb. 21, 1863. Library of Congress. Click to enlarge.But Rumley’s fears of racial strife proved unfounded. A diary entry on January 1, 1863, the day President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, tries to rationalize the absence of a servile uprising. "The Emancipation Proclamation has taken effect today and has sundered, so far as military law can do it, the bonds that united the slave to the master, without producing a ripple on the face of the waters," Rumley marveled. "This peaceful and quiet transition from slavery to freedom must find its explanation, to a great extent, in the fact that the Federal Army in this section of the state had long since, by their conduct towards the slaves, anticipated the Proclamation and virtually set them free."

Rumley’s journal is almost completely devoid of humor. A notable exception was the entry for May 3, 1864, where he noted "A large bear suddenly appeared this morning on the north side of the town … It turns out that the poor animal was a pet bear that had deserted from one of the Federal gunboats in the harbor and was only looking for better company."

For a devoted Confederate, however, there was little cause for levity in 1864, and Rumley’s diary became devoted almost entirely to war news. On April 4, Rumley took note of a daring act of Confederate sabotage when a contingent of the 67th North Carolina landed by boat and attempted to destroy the nearby Cape Lookout Lighthouse. "The explosion did not destroy the building;" he lamented, but it "carried away about sixty feet of the lofty stairway; burst open the doors, shattered the windows and did other damage to the property." All the raiders escaped. The lighthouse was soon back in operation.

One of the few hopeful journal entries came on April 23, 1864. It recounted the occupation of Plymouth, North Carolina, three days earlier by a force of 7,800 Confederates commanded by Brigadier General Robert F. Hoke. In one of the last Confederate victories of the war, Hoke’s troopers bagged "the whole of Wessel’s brigade of Yankees and a number of negroes and ‘Buffaloes’ [white North Carolinians fighting for the Union], by the Confederates who they say indiscriminately slaughtered negroes and buffaloes." The actual number of black and white Union soldiers executed at Plymouth has long been in dispute, but recent scholarship estimates that as many as 50 might have been massacred. On May 2, Hoke and his forces were ordered to Virginia to join General Robert E. Lee’s beleaguered army in the trenches surrounding Richmond and Petersburg.

By the fall of 1864, the specter of death appeared in eastern North Carolina wearing many guises. Rumley’s entries for October 1864 are filled with news of the advent of yellow fever. "The daily news that comes from New Bern is appalling. With steady strides the terrible pestilence walks in darkness and destroys at noon day in that scourged and unhappy town." Before the epidemic subsided in the cool breezes of November, 15 soldiers and 76 residents of Beaufort succumbed to the disease. In New Bern, more than 1,300 soldiers and civilians died.

Like many Southerners, Rumley expressed mixed emotions when news of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln reached Beaufort. "The assassination was a horrible deed," he wrote on April 21, 1865. "But the poor murdered man has gone down to his grave with the blood of millions of his countrymen upon him, and followed no doubt by the secret curses of millions more." Rumley believed that Lincoln would never be forgiven for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, "calculated, and no doubt designed, to upheave and ruin the whole mass of Southern society," and the arming of Southern blacks against their masters, "an outrage against humanity and civilized warfare, which will blacken the memory of the deceased President forever."

The final entry in Rumley’s diary is dated August 1865. "All our exiles are now home," he observes. "No military force is now stationed in our midst and our place begins to look natural." With an air of resigned finality, Rumley hopes "that no night of starless gloom like that we have passed through may ever come."

After the war, Rumley resumed his job as clerk of the court and he represented Carteret County at the state constitutional conventions in 1865 and again in 1875. He is buried in Beaufort’s historic Old Burying Ground of the Ann Street Methodist Church. Many years later, the United Daughters of the Confederacy placed an iron plaque in front of Rumley’s grave embossed with the motto of the Great Seal of the Confederacy Deo Vindice (God will defend us). All the other graves in the cemetery with a similar plaque belong to Confederate soldiers. Clearly, James Rumley fought for the cause he believed in, in his own unique way.

About the Author:
A retired civil servant, Gordon Berg is past president of the Civil War Round Table of the District of Columbia. His articles and book reviews appear in America’s Civil War and Civil War Times and on our partner site, HistoryNet.com

4 Comments

  1. Good article- except for the occasional insinuation of “Southern White Supremacy.”

  2. The structure identified as Beaufort, Carteret County’s first courthouse is inaccurate; although also noted in Johnston’s photos in the Library of Congress. There must have been a mix-up somewhere along the line. This structure is the Octagon House in Cedar Point, NC.

    • Thank you for clarifying that, Mary. The caption was based on information at the Library of Congress, but even the best archives make errors in photo identification; they only have the information they are given to work with. I’ve amended the caption.

  3. Yes it is the Cedar Point octagon and a wonderful photo of it. Ive not seen it before and Ive been collecting octagon house data for ages.

    Thanks for posting it.
    Ellen L Puerzer
    author Octagon House Book

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